Is gum biodegradable? (Let’s find out!)

In this short guide we are going to answer the question “ Is gum biodegradable?” We will discuss the components of chewing gums, its degradability, review its nature and let you know how it is affecting our environment.  

Is Gum Biodegradable?

No, gum is not completely biodegradable and it takes a minimum of 50 years to at least start the breakdown process. The process is long and may last for 1000 years. 

As per Foods and Drugs Administration, the chewing gum is a processed edible substance and is categorised as a food, but the main ingredients used for making the gum is far from the word food. 

Chewing gums are made of polymers and plastics and are not fully biodegradable by the bacterias or any natural processes and hence pose a threat to the environment. 

With its wide use as a mouth freshner and for flavorful pleasure, used gums are creating a sticky problem to the environment. 

Modern day chewing gums are made of following components:

  • Water insoluble gum base incorporated with softeners or plasticizers
  • Water soluble flavouring liquids
  • Water soluble sweeteners

Gum base, a mixture of natural and synthetic material, is one of the main ingredients of gum and consists of resin, wax and elastomer. These provide the elastic nature to the gum and more the elasticity larger is the size of the bubble blown. 

Gum bases are incorporated with softeners that help retain moisture to the gum and hence provide the characteristic chewing texture. Glycerine or vegetable oils are used as softeners which help the gum soften form the warmth of the mouth. 

Further, flavouring agents such as spearmint oil and fruit essences give distinct flavours to chewing gum. Strong sweeteners and flavouring agents are used to produce a prolonged effect on its taste. 

The ingredients range from simple sugar to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame – K, and dihydrochalcone. Prolonged effects of these artificial sweeteners are the main cause of dental decay and affects the salivary pH.

Why is gum resistant to biodegradation?

The components of gum bases such as polyisobutylene or polyvinyl acetate rubber are thermoplastics which are the same as used for making plastic bags and glues. However, these are resistant to heat, water, and several chemical agents. 

Even more, these components are resistant to biological degradation by bacteria and fungi. Thus, they last on the earth longer and tend to pile up with its regular use.  

Even the digestive juices or acids present in our stomach cannot break down the gum. But don’t worry, even if you swallow it, the gum will pass out of your body intact and is excreted in your stool. 

Although gum sticks readily to the shoes, it is pretty much non sticky to the intestine wall or lining of the stomach. Thus, it keeps on moving within the intestinal tract until it is excreted out of the body.

The only process by which gum can be broken down is by sheer brute force and UV light from the sun. Even then it takes several years for it to disintegrate to microplastic fragments.

How is chewing gum a threat to the environment?

Littering of used gum adds more to the source of pollution which comes in second to the disposal of cigarette butts. Around 90% of the used gums are not disposed of properly. These end up on land or in water bodies and cause harmful effects to the living organisms. 

Effect of littered chewing gums on animals 

Chewing gums are not biodegradable and are neither soluble in water. That means the chemical present in the chewing gum stays for a longer period of time. Thus trashing gum on sidewalks or classroom benches may produce a harmful effect to others. 

Chemicals present in the gum such as phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) are shown to cause harmful effects on pets. Most of the time the gums end up in walls or sidewalks rather than in the bins. The pets mistake the littered gum for food and consuming it makes them sick. 

 Consequence of chewing gum on water animals 

Ocean and other water bodies have been an escape route for most of the non degradable wastes. Gum litter eventually finds its way to sewers and finally to the water bodies where they are eaten up by aquatic animals and these gum particles accumulate in the body over time. 

Since aquatic animals are part of the food chain, consuming them eventually ends up in the human body. Thus the cycle repeats.

Chewing gum is a threat to birds

Chewing gum litter can sometimes get stuck on birds feathers which prevent them from flying and hence they become prey to other animals. Moreover, it looks appealing to the bird and if eaten, the gum will cause choking and eventually death.

Other than being harmful to the environment, the production and disposal of gum involve a significant environmental hazard. The raw materials used for the preparation of gum are obtained from various fossil sources such as petroleum, which contributes to water and air pollution. 

In addition, transportation of raw materials and its distribution is another factor that adds to climate change.

Making of biodegradable gums – a promising solution

People use gums for various reasons. Evenmore there are many scientific studies that mint gums actually prevent tooth decay. Many others use it to avoid bad breath or for its flavour and textures. Whatever may the reason be, the advantages of gum are comparatively less than the harmful effect it poses on the environment. 

The long degradation time is the reason why companies are trying to make a sustainable solution for the biodegradation of chewing gum. 

A little gum factory in Copenhagen developed True Gum which is made with naturally occurring plant based sweeteners and flavours which is suitable for vegans. The main advantage of this gum is that it does not use plastic-filled gum bases, rather a chicle ( a sap from the Sapodilla tree) base and hence it is completely biodegradable. Recently few other companies have created less toxic and biodegradable chewing gums. Simply Gum, Glee Gum, Chewsy, and Chicza are some of them which uses chicle for the making of gum base. Another approach was made by the UK based company called Gumdrop where they recycle the used gum to make soles for shoes, boots and other products. 

Terracycle, a recycling company, uses chewing gum litter to make items such as door stops and playground equipment. They are running recycling projects in Europe, the US, and Mexico and thus help the government in saving money on cleaning up gum litter.

Conclusion

The post “Is gum biodegradable?” clearly reports all you need to know about its use, degradability by natural process and how its overuse affects the environment.  The article also highlights the significant steps taken by companies to overcome the issue of gum biodegradability by incorporating naturally occuring safe raw materials for gum production thus preventing the environment from the accumulative side effects of the gum. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs): Is gum biodegradable?

What is gum made of?

Gums are made of synthetic polymer materials such as thermoplastics. Polyisobutylene or polyvinyl acetate rubber are the main ingredients of a gum base. Other than this, artificial or natural softeners, flavouring agents and sweeteners are used to improve its texture and prolong its taste, respectively.

How long does it take for gum to be biodegradable?

Gum are made from thermoplastic polymers and similar to other plastic materials they are not biodegradable. The action of bacteria and fungus takes at least 50 years to start the process of breakdown and it will last for several hundred years to complete.

What type of gum is biodegradable?

When the gum base is made of naturally occurring biodegradable material, we can make completely biodegradable chewing gums. One such material is obtained from the sap of the Sapodilla tree and is called chicle. Gum bases made from chicle are completely biodegradable and few companies have already marketed chewing gums made from chicle.

How do I dispose of chewing gum?

Chewing gum should be disposed of properly by wrapping in foil paper  into a recycle waste bin. It can also be thrown into a non-biodegradable waste bin to prevent any harmful health impact. This allows for proper recycling of the chewing gum and thus preventing its accumulation on sidewalks and other places.

Is gum bad for the environment?

Yes, gum is bad for the environment. Due to its non biodegradable nature and improper disposing, chewing gum ends up in sidewalks and water bodies where they cause harmful effects to animals, birds, and aquatic animals. 

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